The Post

Review by Willard Manus

In the tradition of “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” THE POST is a journalism movie, one that goes behind the scenes at the Washington Post and shows how much courage it took for that newspaper to stand up to governmental and business pressure and publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret documents that revealed how four U.S. presidents waged a brutal and unnecessary war in Viet Nam.

THE POST is a star vehicle for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who play, respectively, the publisher and editor of The Post, both of whom had the responsibility of deciding whether to publish the expose or not. Streep impersonates Katherine Graham, a woman who was obliged to take control of the newspaper in 1965 when its owner, her husband Frank, suddenly committed suicide. Graham, a D.C. matron who had never worked a day in her life, struggled to follow in his footsteps. Not only was she a timid and inexperienced executive, she was the only woman in an all-male world, treated as an inferior by “the boys.”

In yet another of her masterful performances, Streep charts how Graham came of age at the Post and grew into her job, eventually finding the strength and conviction to become a free press champion. Aiding her was Ben Bradlee (Hanks), the managing editor of the paper, a man whose dogged democratic values influenced and inspired her.

Their friendship was strongly tested in 1971 when the Nixon White House not only tried to quash publication of the Pentagon Papers but sued to put Graham and Bradlee in jail for their role in disclosing sensitive national secrets.

THE POST, which was skillfully directed by Steven Spielberg, also has elements of a detective story; much of the film is devoted to showing how the Post tracked down the Pentagon Papers. It was Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a special assistant to the Pentagon’s Chief for Foreign Policy–-and a Viet Nam veteran–-who had discovered the Papers in 1969. Shocked to learn that the U.S. government had known from the onset that the war in Viet Nam was unwinnable, yet continued for cynical ideological reasons to send American boys to their death over there, Ellsberg decided to become a whistle-blower. After photocopying the 7,000-page archive on Viet Nam, he leaked the archive to the New York Times and started an anti-war crusade with a public letter demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Nam.

When the Times was prevented by the White House from publishing the entire archive, the Washington Post took on the challenge (after much internal debate). Although the paper’s board of directors and its lawyers were dead set against publication–-it could have led to the Post’s demise, they felt-–Graham and Bradlee, after much hand-wringing and arguing, decided to go to press. As a result, the nation was able to learn about the secret deals and political shenanigans which resulted in us going to war in southeast Asia.

Again, the White House, led by the foul-mouthed, vindictive President Nixon, sought to indict Graham and Bradlee. Nixon’s case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which voted in favor of the Post’s right to publish the Pentagon Papers. A movie like THE POST shows how important a liberal Supreme Court is to the health of the nation. If Earl Warren and five other justices hadn’t voted against the White House, Bradlee and Graham would have been put in jail–-and their newspaper might have gone under.